Let me start at the beginning.
A number of weeks ago, I received a flyer in my letterbox, inviting me to a "special Bible talk" being hosted at my local Kindgom Hall entitled 'Does Death End It All?'. As the Jehovah's Witnesses were already on my list of Christian churches to attend, I eagerly booked it in.
Over the next few weeks, news articles appeared in the media focusing on the denomination of Jehovah's Witnesses. I try to go into every church with an open mind and no pre-conceived ideas of what I may find, but these articles had me wondering exactly what I may be walking in to.
Jehovah's Witnesses 'A Cruel Cult' , and Slamming the door on Jehovah.
So I was nervous.
The 'talk' was at 1:30pm on a Sunday, which was strange, but not an unpleasant change from the mornings. The hall was only a few blocks from home, so I walked there, and as I got to the venue, was quickly embarrassed by my outfit. Don't get me wrong - it was super cute, but not the formal suit and tie or dinner dress the regulars were wearing. The hall was split into two levels, and as I walked into the lower level hall I was quickly told that 'my service was upstairs'.
I wasn't offended. I had clearly walked into an all African-American church meeting.
I headed up the stairs and was greeted at the door by a gentleman named Eric. Eric shook my hand and continued to hold it as he found out what on earth I was doing there. He seemed genuinely shocked I had responded to the flyer and was not here at the invitation of a fellow Witness. Still holding my hand, he walked me through the hall and introduced me to his wife, Mary.
No matter what I go on to say about my experience at this hall, let me be clear on this one point: Eric and Mary were the kindest, most welcoming people I have met this year. They stayed with me from when I walked in the door until I walked out it, in fact, several times offering me a lift home. They gave me ample opportunities to ask any questions I had and answered them politely and with humility. Mary made sure I was comfortable throughout the entire two and a half hours I was there, gently leaning in and whispering to me what was happening next, sharing her bible and songbook with me and even helping me put my cardigan on when I got stuck. With pride they introduced me to other Witnesses who came to say hello to me after the service. I was never a burden to them, never a responsibility. I truly felt like their honoured guest, and they had nowhere else to be, or nothing more important to do than take care of me.
So the rest then.
The hall was very plainly decorated. There was no iconography of any description. The walls were painted a neutral colour, the chairs were incredibly comfortable, perfect for long-term sitting, and the 'stage' area was a raised platform with a few chairs, a pulpit and a simple banner at the top reading the scripture Joshua 1:9:
'Be courageous and strong, Jehovah your God is with you.'
We opened with a song from the song book. I had to ask Mary where the music was coming from, as their was no band, or even pianist I could see. She explained it came from the sound desk, a backing track provided to the church. She chuckled that the pre-recorded music was a result of a 'lack of talent' on their part. However with no lead singer, the Witnesses sang quietly along to the backing track before we prayed and the Elder handed to another brother to deliver the 'special talk'.
I knew at this point I was the only visitor who had responded to their mailbox campaign.
'Does Death End It All' was not the talk I expected to hear from the Jehovah's Witnesses. It probably went for 15-20 minutes, and outlined their views on the human soul/spirit, death being 'the end of life', their denial of Heaven or Hell as a place that a human life would end up, and proposed the theory that life would be everlasting, to those who have faith, through resurrection at the day of judgement - that is, they will live forever on this earth.
I want to point out that for every view they mentioned, they turned to a verse in the bible to support their views. Now, as I've said before, I think there is great danger in 'verse hunting' - that is looking for the one liner that says what you want to prove your point - but they were diligent at bringing everything they said back to the bible.
Now I'm pretty familiar with the bible, so I should also mention at this point some of the verses they read sounded different than I'd heard them before. Which is when I realised the Jehovah's Witnesses have their own translation of the bible - the New World Translation. These guys are the only denomination who recognises this translation.
And that is moving into some pretty scary territory.
So while they diligently refer everything back to the bible, they refer it back to their interpretation of the bible. Several times throughout the afternoon they explained that their translation was accurate. Several times throughout the afternoon they declared their understanding to be the only truth. Several times throughout the afternoon I thought what a truly lonely religion they were a part of.
After the talk, the first Elder returned and made some brief announcements; Jehovah’s Witnesses were honoured to offer free in-home bible studies and if you wanted to arrange one, simply grab an attendant on the way out. Now; for this week’s Watchtower study.
Mary turned to me and whispered that it was bible study time, and was I happy to stay. I’d only been there for about thirty minutes, and if I left now I wouldn’t get to find out what really happened in their services, or get to talk to Mary properly, so of course I wanted to stay. Also, to leave now would mean to be the only person in the hall who stood up and walked out and I don’t like that sort of attention.
The bible study would go for an hour and a half.
Eric kindly handed me a new copy of the April Watchtower, which had this month’s studies inside. Mary and Eric's copies had notes all through them; they had done their homework.
It also hit me at this point that every Jehovah’s Witness in the world was doing the exact same study as us at this time. This is an organisation who are organised. And there is no room for movement at all.
What happened next was like a University tutorial with only mature aged students. An Elder would read a paragraph of the study, the Study Conductor would then ask a question about what had been read and the congregation would shoot up their hands for the opportunity to present their answer. A Ministerial Servant would come to them with a cordless microphone, they would answer perfectly (they’d clearly been studying all week) and the Study Conductor would nod proudly. We repeated this method for the rest of the service. I never did get to find out what happens if you get a wrong answer.
I can’t really criticise the structure. It was the most active, engaged congregation I’ve ever seen and no one appeared bored or restless. The repetition of information ensured everyone was learning what they were being taught.
The content worried me though. Everything we learned was about what makes the Jehovah’s Witness faith different from others, and how we know that it’s the only ‘true’ faith. They discussed the persecution they suffer, and the ‘privilege’ it is to serve Jehovah. This was them learning to be courageous and strong. I had no doubt these people have a very hard day-to-day existence. The tone was overwhelmingly like they were convincing themselves everything was okay; they were okay. It was an honour to be a Witness and they shouldn’t ever doubt why they were doing what they do.
We didn’t learn about Jesus. About what it means to be a person of faith. How we can make the world a better place. We didn’t learn about love. In my notes I scribbled: Is their entire life purpose to justify their denomination?
I’ve said enough for now.
I’m going to save Part II for when I’ve had a chance to go through the readings Mary & Eric gave me before I left; including three editions of Awake! Magazine and the book ‘What does the bible really teach?’ Also I'll give you all the goss on my chats with Mary and Eric about homosexuality, fornication & drunkenness. Oh, and of course, smoking.